A Scottish Murder - Re-writing the Madeleine Smith Story

Jimmy Powdrell Campbell

Premeditated murder obviously implies a degree of forethought. The general idea is to commit the crime and escape the consequences. That's what makes it interesting. Murderers can go to great lengths to conceal their actions. They're illusionists, albeit amateur illusionists, creating often complex scenarios to establish their apparent innocence.

150 years ago in Scotland, Madeleine Smith sat in the dock accused of the murder, by arsenic, of her ex-boyfriend. Since that day, every book on the case has bought into the illusion. The circumstances surrounding the death of Emile L'Angelier have been probed and dissected by countless esteemed crime writers but maybe no-one working to a publishing deadline has the time to get a handle on a story like this. As a writer, deadline or no, you have to get to know the characters. That puts you in the unique position of being able to answer the question: which of these two is the illusionist? You're now half-way to cracking the case. Whether you know it or not, the key's in your hands.

In every good riddle, we're tricked by our assumptions. This case remained unsolved for a century and a half because of the all-but-inevitable assumption that the dead man was the victim. The many celebrated works - I'd have to say works of fiction - based on the Madeleine Smith story have always held a certain fascination but the true crime that led to Scotland's most famous murder trial of the 19th century spun a web of illusion that almost defies belief. If you're an advocate of the death penalty, this case might make you think again (then again, if you're an advocate of the death penalty, maybe thinking has never really been your forte). If you just like a good murder, I promise you will not be disappointed, even although this was a "murder" created entirely by smoke and mirrors; it still has all the ingredients and then some. At the end of the day, we not only get to meet the real victim for the first time, but we get an unique insight into the mind of a psychopath who has managed to escape detection since 1857.

Jimmy Powdrell Campbell

"A Scottish Murder - Re-writing the Madeleine Smith Story"  - Tempus Publishing, 2007.

I think I should apologize right now, before you get too far into this. The full story of the Madeleine Smith case used to be set out on this page along with a collection of related information, some of which was almost more fascinating than the story itself.  I began researching the case, around 1990, for a small (but very popular) musical production on the Edinburgh Fringe. When the production was over, the research just continued, without any real purpose, and the information on the case built up to the point that, for want of a better idea as to what to do with it, it eventually wound up on the internet... here.

At one point, I approached a Scottish publisher and explained that I had uncovered what I felt was a fairly important story that overturned some of the central assumptions of one of Scotland's most famous murder cases but they didn't think there was much of a market for it; "everyone knows the Madeleine Smith Story." (Seriously, that's what he said)! I later scripted a four-part semi-dramatized documentary version for BBC Radio Scotland that was broadcast in 1998 and our research was also featured in the BBC Knowledge channel's History Fix programme with Rory McGrath. Towards the end of 2006, however, out of the blue, I got an email from Tempus Publishing (now The History Press) asking if I would be interested in writing the book.

The one thing that I didn't think about was the consequence for the web site of having a book on sale telling what might seem to be the same story that anyone could read on the web, for free. The fact is that the account that used to sit here was in serious need of a re-write since, as I've said, the research was ongoing but, nevertheless, it wouldn't have seemed fair to people who paid good money for the book - Tempus are not cheap - only to find that a free version, even missing a few key elements, was only a quick google away. So... what we have here, at the moment, is a kind of online intro for the book.

I used to say that the best of the internet is free - I still say it - and I used to be able to hold these greed-driven amateur-commercial sites in some contempt - I still do - but I've sold out. I think I've become one of these people. I'm really grateful to Tempus for the opportunity to tell the story in print and I'm really grateful to every individual who has bought a copy but, at some point, I expect that the sales of the book will tail off (if it hasn't already happened) and I'm looking forward to being able to re-instate the whole Madeleine Smith story on the web, where it belongs. So, further down the page here, when you get to the bit that says "read more..." (with the obligatory link to Amazon), at least you know it's coming... (and it's going, at the earliest opportunity). In the meantime, the role of the web site is to allow those intelligent, perceptive people who have already bought the book to dig a bit deeper into the story, to access more details about both the family and, of course, the real facts behind the greatest trial of the 19th century.

If you haven't already bought the book, you may wonder why Madeleine Smith was believed, for so long, to have commited murder and why L'Angelier has always been portrayed as the innocent victim. As one journalist succinctly expressed it, "why has it taken us all this time to see through the twisted little b*****d?" (He didn't put that in print). I think, however, when you read the testimony, as it was presented, you'll see just how guilty she appeared to be, although you'll realize, also, how many difficulties the prosecution were faced with. Given the evidence that was heard, the jury returned the only verdict they could. It was a miscarriage of justice, but that was always the intention.

The Madeleine Smith story is, of course, not just the most famous Scottish murder case of the 19th century; it's the story of a family and of the tragedy that was inflicted upon them because they happened to be good at what they did. Madeleine's grandfather, architect, David Hamilton, is remembered with much respect and affection as the " Father of Glasgow Architecture." On a personal level, he was an immensely likeable individual. I felt it inappropriate to go into any detail about his life in the book - people want to get on with the story - but, in a way, it's impossible to understand Madeleine Smith without getting to know her family. The following snippets may help put some more flesh on the bones but a more coherent (and readable) account of David Hamilton's life is Francis Worsdall's article for the May 1968 Scottish Field (transcribed here: Works of David Hamilton, architect).

On the 5th of May 1794, David Hamilton married 16 year old Magdalene Marshall, the daughter of Glasgow wine merchant, John Marshall. Over the next 23 years they had 12 children. During that period, David Hamilton's status as an architect was growing steadily. There was always a sense of stature rather than ostentation in his work, strength rather than the mere show of power or wealth. He seemed to give expression to a need which lay deep in the West of Scotland psyche: the need not only for respect but, firstly, more importantly, self-respect. A lifelong association with the City of Glasgow began in 1802 with the designs of Hutchieson’s Hospital in Ingram Street and the Theatre Royal in Queen Street. There followed a succession of civic, domestic and ecclesiastic works which took him to the top of the profession in the West of Scotland.

In 1821, William, aged 25, and David, 19, Hamilton’s two eldest sons, who had followed him in his profession, died within two days of each other. William had appeared in perfect health and was writing to inform relatives of his brother’s death yet he was dead by the next day. Their sister, Helen, was another who wouldn't survive her parents. She died, at age 28, two years after her marriage and after the birth of her daughter, Magdalene McCallum who was then brought up in the Hamilton household.

The following year, the Duke of Hamilton engaged David Hamilton for the re-building of Hamilton Palace. The work which was undertaken there was on a scale which almost defies description Duke of Hamilton's Palace - CLICK TO VIEW (although in 1835 "The New Statistical Account" was to make a bold stab at quantifying what had taken place - "there were employed in the building the addition to the palace: 28,056 tons of stones drawn by 22,528 horses; 5,534 tons of lime, sand, stucco, wood etc. drawn by 5,196 horses." Prior to David Hamilton's engagement, more than one distinguished European architect seems to have fallen in and out of favour with the Duke so it is difficult to be clear on the actual contribution made by each to the design but it seems that each, in turn, was presented with the plans of his predecessor and, ultimately, as is the custom, the Duke himself would take the credit for the regal splendour of the finished work which was, in every detail, of his own choosing.

Hamilton Palace, now demolished, was, without argument, David Hamilton's most magnificent achievement but the familiar, stately elegance of the Royal Exchange in Queen Street will alwaysThe Royal Exchange -  CLICK FOR MORE IMAGES AND INFORMATION  be commemorative of the man and his time. Work began on the conversion of the old mansion which stood on the site in 1827. The year previous, work had begun on the new Royal Bank building (designed by Archibald Elliot Jnr.) which stands to the west of (i.e. behind) the Exchange and it was that prestigious contract that introduced the Alloa building company of John Smith & Son, to the expanding Glasgow construction market.

Smith’s firm was subsequently contracted for the building of the Royal Exchange and they also worked closely with David Hamilton (partly as building contractors, partly as property developers) on the modification and execution of Elliot Jnr.'s design of the Royal Exchange Square, fire having destroyed, in 1829, the Theatre Royal which stood at the corner of Queen Street, on the north side of the square. The property which the Smiths built on that side remained on their hands for some time. Smith's son, James, lived in one of the houses, at one point, and the rest were let until buyers could be found. (When, 25 years later, Madeleine writes about meeting L'Angelier at the family's old quarters in the Square, that's the house she's referring to).

The Glasgow Herald of the 29th March 1833 carried this announcement: "At Buchanan St, on 26th inst., by Rev Mr Henderson of St Enochs, James Smith Esq., wood merchant, Glasgow, to Janet, daughter of David Hamilton, Esq., architect, Glasgow." Madeleine's birth, two years later to the day, was announced simply: "At 167 Regent Street, on the 29th March, Mrs James Smith; of a daughter." Her sister, Betsy, was born at the same address in 1837 and her brother, John, at Bedford Place (Renfrew St) in 1839. Birkenshaw House - click to viewAnother brother, David, was born the following year but, tragically, he died at only one month old. The youngest members of the family, James and Janet, were both born at "Birkenshaw Cottage" in Eastwood, Renfrewshire, in 1842 and 1844 respectively. John Smith, had been a tenant at "Birkenshaw House" since 1835. He later purchased the property and adjoining estate and began work to improve upon his investment. Much of the gardens and walks throughout the grounds survive today in Rouken Glen Park. James Smith, by now receiving recognition as an architect, was also involved and, by 1841, the families of both Smith Senior and Junior were residing at Birkenshaw House and Cottage.

David Hamilton's death in 1843 was marked by the usual reverential obituaries but there was a ring of truth to them all. The following, from the Glasgow Citizen, is fairly typical: "Our obituary this day contains the name of Mr Hamilton, the eminent architect. About two years ago, he had an attack of paralysis, from which he never thoroughly recovered; and for some time past he had been in a declining state of health. His death took place at two o'clock, on the morning of Tuesday last (5th Dec). He was in the seventy-sixth year of his age.

"Mr Hamilton’s professional abilities were of the first order; and in private life, he was distinguished for the singular amiability of his character, the unaffected modesty of his disposition, the vivacity of his conversation, enlivened as it often was with anecdotes of the olden time, and for his genuine worth of heart, lack of self-interest, and his sense of honour.

"…Few men had more attached friends or were more warm in their friendships. He was much esteemed by his professional brethren; and neither jealousy nor unworthy rivalry had any place in their intercourse. He has bequeathed to all who knew him, the memory of a good example - he survives in the affections of his friends - and the numerous splendid works he has left behind, may be regarded as so many monuments commemorative of his genius."

The Collegiate School (architect: James Smith) - click to view 
 Collegiate School -  Lithograph by the architect, James Smith

The respect attached to Hamilton's name, in architectural circles, remained undiminished, but few of his contemporaries would have believed that, in the years to come, his fame would be surpassed by the notoriety of his grand-daughter.

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A Scottish Murder - Re-writing the Madeleine Smith Story - Introduction:

Thursday, 9th July 1857 - The atmosphere outside the High Court in Edinburgh was charged to fever pitch as the crowd awaited the verdict at the end of the most sensational trial of the century. Hanging in the balance was the life of Madeleine Smith, attractive 22 year old daughter of a prosperous Glasgow architect. Over the last few days, revelations of Madeleine's secret romance had been making headlines in London, Paris and New York. By the end of the trial, in spite of widespread belief in her guilt, sympathy had swung towards Madeleine and the crowds cheered when news of the Not Proven verdict reached the street. Madeleine was free to leave the court but never was she free from suspicion.

The New York Herald announced: "We devote this morning half our available space to the trial of Madeleine Smith, the young Scotch lady who was accused of murdering her lover by poison. Our readers will probably find it the most thrilling narrative of crime, passion and judicial inquiry that has ever fallen under their notice. No case, in any volume of celebrated causes, can compare with it for vividness of interest, intense passion and dramatic effect."

"I have read accounts of that case before and I thought that I knew it but your book showed me how ignorant I was of it! I found the tale as riveting as ever. We are 150 years on from those happenings yet they are still quite fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the last few pages.

What an interesting and original theory you have propounded! The tables have been turned by you in a way that never occurred to me, nor, I suspect to anyone else who has shown an interest in that fascinating case. I shall happily commend your book to anyone who displays even a modicum of interest." - Len Murray.

At twenty-two years of age, Madeleine Smith, eldest daughter of Glasgow architect, James Smith, had become public property. Her story - the murder of Emile L'Angelier - had all the ingredients: sex, ambition, blackmail, poison and, of course, mystery. Her remarkable composure, throughout the trial, only added fuel to the fire; it was as shocking to some as it was admirable to others. She "stepped up into the dock with all the buoyancy with which she might have entered the box of a theatre..." Even so, her place in history was not assured until the foreman of the jury rose and slowly and distinctly read out the verdict. The New York Herald journalist reported that, "when the last Not Proven is reached, loud cheers and hurrahs and hand-clappings rend the rafters, and are raised again and again, deafening the angry judges who strive in vain to still the tumult."

This reaction was yet another feature that sets the case apart. Many of Madeleine Smith's supporters believed that she may, indeed, have committed murder, such was their contempt for the deceased. At the extremes, some asserted that the only tragedy was that she had had to do it herself when, had they known the circumstances, so many would have been willing to dispatch L'Angelier on her behalf. Madeleine's hope, expressed after the trial, that, "God Almighty may yet unveil the mystery," was never realised in her lifetime.

150 years on, and the case continues to be re-discovered with tedious regularity. Madeleine's supposedly enigmatic character has been explored in films, plays, newspaper articles and an endless succession of books. The path is deep and wide with footsteps leading to the same anti-climactic conclusion that the jury arrived at in 1857. I suppose it's the mystery that holds our interest but there remains another story to be told, and it deals with one simple question that, incredibly, has remained unanswered for all that time: what really happened?

The traditional version, which has put food on the table for many an author, can be told very simply. Spoiled society belle, Madeleine Smith, meets rather interesting French packing clerk, Pierre Emile L'Angelier. Her father forbids the relationship but she continues to see L'Angelier secretly. They write literally hundreds of letters to each other. They meet whenever they can, even if only at her basement-bedroom window. They fall in love. They make love. They plan to marry in secret (although Emile would prefer to have the blessing of Madeleine's parents). But time passes and Madeleine meets another man, William Minnoch, a friend of the Smith family. Minnoch proposes. Madeleine accepts and she writes to L'Angelier to end the affair. Emile, however, can't live without her. He's willing to do anything to get her back. He reminds her of all the letters she's written, letters in which she expresses her feelings very candidly, rather too explicitly. If her father saw those letters… Madeleine can't marry Minnoch while L'Angelier is around. She can see only one way out. She calmly walks into the local chemist and buys arsenic. When L'Angelier next comes for their usual assignation at the basement-bedroom window, she passes a cup of cocoa through the stanchions. The first attempt merely makes him ill so she repeats the procedure and, on the third occasion, she succeeds. On the morning of Monday 23rd March 1857, L'Angelier dies of arsenic poisoning.

It's a passably entertaining story as evidenced by the number of times it has been told but it is a work of utter fiction and no less so for all the repetition. The principal players are caricatures, figments of the imagination and that, perhaps, has been an obstacle for students of the case since 1857. Without an understanding of the real Madeleine Smith, the real Emile L'Angelier, the riddle of L'Angelier's death would almost certainly, as Tennyson Jesse confidently predicted, have remained unsolved.

The public response to the evidence, as printed, almost verbatim, in every major newspaper was overwhelmingly supportive of the accused. As soon as the trial was over, however, began the analysis, the speculation, and the humbug about declining moral standards. This was Victorian Scotland and the Presbyterian hypocrisy of the time was still in full vigour. Here was a lesson to us all. A girl from a thoroughly respectable family, with every benefit of a sound upbringing and education… a family who respected the Sabbath and met for prayers every Sunday evening. Which of us could say their own house was in better order? The explicit sexual references in her letters were shocking but, in themselves, it was not they that were criminal. This girl had given herself to L'Angelier and, under Scots Law, she was his wife. It was her treachery that condemned her. She was not born evil but she had chosen evil, and her descent into depravity had begun as soon as she entered into a clandestine relationship. That foul murder should be the conclusion of this spiral of degeneracy must come as no surprise.

Before long, like Richard III, even Madeleine's features and demeanour became unattractive. Her composure was now a defiance; her smile became a smirk; she grew a "hawkish nose, a steely eye and a determined jaw." Phrenologists were enlisted to examine the bumps on Madeleine's head; graphologists, psychologists and criminologists were likewise recruited to lend weight the latest author's pronunciations. Who can argue with an "ology"?

A few years ago, Madeleine's great granddaughter was contacted by a writer who was working on the case. A meeting was arranged and the writer's wife came along too. At one point, Madeleine's great granddaughter, conscious of being scrutinized, said, "if you're thinking I look anything like Madeleine, I don't. I take after my mother's side of the family." The writer's wife said, "oh no, it's just that he likes to study the criminal mind."

The case certainly affords an unique insight into the workings of an extremely unhealthy and criminal mind but that writer, like so many before him, was looking in entirely the wrong direction. It's human nature. We form an impression about a person based upon what we have observed or what we have been told. From that point on, it's next to impossible to see that person, or their context, in any other way. It might be complete and utter nonsense but, once established, it's very hard to rid our minds of that first impression. Who was Madeleine Smith? Oh, she was that Glasgow girl who murdered her French boyfriend… arsenic, wasn't it? It is the connotations that do the most damage, the adjectives that immediately spring to mind: cold, callous, heartless… well, she must have been, to do what she did. With the best will in the world, we can't un-create the Madeleine that has now been established in the minds of so many but...

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Getting the truth out regarding the Madeleine Smith case is, I think, important not only for Madeleine's family but, ultimately, for Scottish Justice. There is, however, an incomparably greater cruelty and injustice that the British and American people are almost universally unaware of, and it's happening today. If you find yourself attracted to the truth behind universally-accepted myths and if you also like the idea of getting the truth out into the open when injustice is being deliberately covered up, you may find my current ongoing investigation interesting. It's about a mass murder that took place earlier this year and was hardly reported either by the BBC or by the mainstream USA media. With astonishing parallels to the Madeleine Smith case, the criminals, in this case, have managed to present themselves as victims all along, while successfully portraying the real victims as criminals, and the international media has bought into the illusion for 60 years.

When you study the Madeleine Smith story, you come to understand the mind of the near-psychopathic personality, his manipulation, his pathological lying, his gross self-interest, his utter lack of compassion. This personality, however, is not only to be found in the high security prison, he is often attracted to and suited to a career in industry or politics, and that's when he is at his most dangerous. Check out the story at www.wedidnotknow.com/


      Copyright © 1997 Jimmy Powdrell Campbell